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Friday, Feb. 27, 2004


Savor the spirit of ancient Japan

Special to The Japan Times

In a far-off age -- long before they were savoring the busy touristic delight of gadding around a dozen European cities in as many days -- the Japanese were a fairly untraveled lot.

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Daiki (above), the top lse eatery for royalty and commoners alike. Ukiyo-e prints adorn an old building in Ohairamachi, a town still catering to lse's pilgrims and visitors as it has for ages past.
News photo

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the ruling shoguns believed that home is where the heart is. And that was where they thought the rest of a peasant's body belonged as well -- tilling the land so as to pay the onerous taxes they imposed on them. Rare was the farmer who saw much beyond the village where he was born and where he would die.

For a fortunate few of these feudal peasants, however, there was one occasion on which they might leave their harsh existence briefly behind -- a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Ise.

This venerated spot in present-day Mie Prefecture is home to Ise Shrine, the holiest of Japan's 100,000 Shinto sanctuaries. Comprising the Outer and Inner shrines, Ise Shrine has long been closely linked with the Imperial Family, and its two precincts are dedicated to, respectively, the goddess of cereals (Toyoke-Omikami) and the goddess of the sun (Amaterasu-Omikami).

A well-known feature of these shrines is that, with only a few exceptions since the seventh century, they have been dismantled and rebuilt in an identical fashion on an adjacent site every 20 years -- an act that doubtlessly serves as a constant inspiration to Japan's frenetic rip-it-down-and-build-another construction industry.

When I made my own arrival in Ise it was already evening. I asked at the hotel desk where I might find a good restaurant, and the clerk suggested Daiki: "That's where the emperor dines."

I thought that would probably do at a pinch, and so I followed his directions. Basking in its imperial patronage, Daiki is not the sort of spot that believes in hiding its light under a bushel: "The most famous restaurant in Japan," declares the sign outside. (No, I hadn't heard of it either.) But once you get pass this hyperbole, Daiki is in fact quite unassuming with rather friendly staff. The food itself was simple, but seriously good, and the quality of local ingredients, particularly the fresh seafood, was evident. The rich, dark, intensely flavored miso soup meant business, likewise the crisp vegetable dishes -- and the tempura had all the fluffy excellence you would expect of a distinguished eatery.

Victuals also figured high on the agenda when I visited the Outer Shrine the next morning. That is where sacred food is ceremonially offered twice daily to Amaterasu. And it is indeed some ceremony.

I arrived at 7:30 a.m. and saw one of the most exquisite scenes I've ever witnessed in Japan. From the outer gate, which is as far as the general public gets, I saw about a dozen priests in their sweeping white robes, black clogs and black tie-on hats in the Nakanoe Courtyard before the main sanctuary. As if on some period film set, they were elegantly seated at various points in this courtyard, wherein grow great cedars and which is covered with fist-size stones marking off dove-gray and white areas. The plaintive, unearthly music of the sho (mouth organ) and flutes sounded slowly as the priests went through the various rituals. It was like having a sudden, remarkable porthole open up on ancient Japan.

Lovely though the scene was, unless you have a passion for rooftops, as a photographer you don't generally return too satisfied from Ise. The main sanctuaries of the two shrines may not be photographed up close, though, curiously, signs to that effect are written only in Japanese. Should the wily foreigner feign gaijin ignorance and try taking a snap beyond a certain point, he will be told to desist -- firmly though ever so politely -- by the shrine officials. These are the men who maintain order in this holy of holies and shuffle tourists out of the way of an approaching phalanx of priests. In their gold-trimmed black uniforms, shoulder braid and peaked caps, the officials look rather like an assembly of dapper sea captains who share a fondness for the same tailor.

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Shinto priests cross a bridge in the precincts of the inner Shrine at lse.

The Outer Shrine is located within the town itself, but the Inner Shrine is 15 minutes away by bus. Beginning as it does with the grand Uji Bridge, which spans the sacred Isuzu River, the approach to the Inner Shrine is gently majestic. Like the shrine buildings, this arched cypress and zelkova bridge undergoes reconstruction every 20 years. And the result is one of Japan's finest bridges, looking like something that has been transplanted straight out of a Hiroshige ukiyo-e print.

Architecturally, the various structures of the Inner Shrine, believed to date back to the third century, are built to virtually the same style as those of the Outer. In line with the great symbolic importance of rice in ancient times, the buildings are thought to be based on prehistoric granaries or storehouses, and in accordance with good Japanese aesthetic sense, the style is agreeably simple and uncluttered. The raised buildings and surrounding palisades are of unvarnished cypress, with the only decorations being sprigs of sakakibara tied to main posts and gold leaf on some roof details.

After having imbibed the sacred atmosphere of the precincts of Amaterasu, it is no bad thing to imbibe something a little more refreshing, and that can be found back across the Uji Bridge in Oharaimachi. This is a pleasant district of old buildings that has been catering to visitors for centuries. On sale here are all manner of wares from sake, seafood and green-tea ice cream to the pearls harvested in nearby Toba. Over the place hangs the delicious smell of tea, of chestnuts being roasted, and of fish being grilled. Oharaimachi may not have quite the same historical renown as the neighboring shrine, but its cheerful, open character is as attractive to the modern visitor as it must have been to those footsore pilgrims of yore as they finally arrived here after having trudged from kamisama knows where.

Ise is 1 hr. 22 min. from Nagoya by Kintetsu limited express, or 1 hr. 36 min. by JR rapid train.

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